Chess, often referred to as “the game of kings,” is a centuries-old game enjoyed by people of all ages. Expert ranked chess player Jay Stallings has made it his mission to help Santa Clarita students find joy in this ancient battle of wits.
Stallings is the founder of the California Youth Chess League (CYCL), which teaches after school classes and hosts tournaments like the California state championship, and created the “Coach Jay’s Chess Academy” instructional book series. In the past 25 years, Stallings has taught chess to more than 40,000 children in Santa Clarita.
As the son of a Florida state champion chess player, Stallings began learning chess at age 5, he said.
“We played every day, and it was just something I enjoyed, but it was the only sport I was able to beat my brother at,” Stallings said. “After that, I decided this was something I really wanted to pursue. Even though I always lost to my dad, I discovered at a tournament that I was playing at a much higher level than other people my age.”
At age 11, Stallings was recognized as the third-best player for his age and credits this accomplishment for giving him the confidence to pursue leadership roles, like captain of his school’s soccer team and student council president. Stallings went on to work in international business and coached soccer on the side.
In 1993, the chess film “Searching for Bobby Fischer” was released and at the urging of his wife, who believed the film would spur mothers to enroll their children in lessons, Stallings left his career to teach chess. He held his first class on the week of the Northridge earthquake with 27 students.
“The family business growing up was teaching guitar, and my mom was a phenomenal teacher, so I watched her to learn how to be a good teacher,” Stallings said. “I was also facing a lot of the societal pressures to make more money versus what I was passionate about, but my wife helped me stay on this path. I’m still in contact with a lot of the students from that first class.”
After two years of teaching chess, Stallings formed the CYCL as the first nonprofit educational chess organization and went from having 75 students at a time to as many as 1,000.
He found that venues that normally cost money were willing to let him use their spaces for free as a nonprofit, and that people wanted to donate to his cause, so forming a nonprofit was a way to make chess education more affordable and to reach a wider audience. Since then, Stallings has been president of the Southern California Chess Federation and taught chess internationally.
The CYCL is Santa Clarita-based because Stallings lives here. He said he appreciates the small-town, self-contained nature of the city that at the same time is large enough to sustain a robust community of chess players.
Though good chess players are often surrounded by an aura of intellectual mystique, Stallings acknowledges that chess has a long way before it approaches the same level of popularity as sports like soccer, but he is thankful to have been able to establish a local hotspot for it.
Stallings said that the beginning of his chess teaching career was very focused on the technical aspects and strategies. However, that focus changed in 2006, after one of Stallings’ top students, Sean Reader, died of cancer. After that, the focus shifted toward using chess as a metaphor and tool to teach life skills.
“It changes your perspective when someone you’re close to passes away,” Stallings said. “You stop thinking about how can you train grandmasters and instead look at how you can change these kids as a person. Now, I don’t look at games as if you won or you lost, but as ‘did you win or did you learn?’”
Throughout the years, Stallings had been writing his own curriculum, and in 2014, he created the “Coach Jay’s Chess Academy” app that was downloaded 100,000 times before the software became outdated and was too expensive to update in 2017. Though the app did not last long, it helped Stallings better structure his lessons.
Fans of the app began to ask if the material was available in print, which led him to convert the lessons from the app into a seven-level series of lessons and puzzle books along with a sticker passport book reward system.
A Kickstarter campaign for the “Chess Academy” books series raised $30,000. Last year, he sold 16,000 books and hopes to triple that number this year. He added that he would like to expand the book series and would like to find a way to revive to app.
“The book series is great because a lot schools can’t afford to buy 50 iPads for the app but they can easily get the books for their students,” he said. “I’m really proud of this book series because they’re like a megaphone for me to help get my material out there.”
Moving forward, the 52-year-old chess coach said he wants to help train his employees to keep the CYCL alive, even if he is not at the helm. Though he is looking to eventually retire from his position as the organization’s director, Stallings said that he has no plans to stop teaching chess.
“I like that chess teaches grit and that it’s a nice, level playing field, where if you bear down you have a good chance of success, whether you’re 7 or 70 years old,” he said. “Both my sons got a chance to play with my dad while he was alive, and you can’t put a price on that ability to connect people across generations and across the world.”